Brief Book Review: Musical Scores and the Eternal Present

Musical Scores and the Eternal Present: Theology, Time, and Tolkien
By Chiara Bertoglio

Who should read this book: To borrow a musical image, this is not a tightly composed “sonata” with sustained development of key themes, but more like a philosophical and theological “suite” with frequent pivots to new and intriguing motifs. Thus, this book is for the adventurous mind that is open to exploring a wide range of sometimes tangential topics. Also, since the author is a trained pianist and theologian – with developed philosophical chops – this oeuvre is not for the musical or theological neophyte. Finally, since the author digs deep into the collection of mythopoeic stories by J. R. R. Tolkien known as The Silmarillion, published posthumously by his son (1977), it helps if one is a fan of Tolkien or at least of this kind of mythic literature as a credible source of theological analogies and wisdom.

What will you (the reader) enjoy the most: There is much to delight and intrigue here. For Tolkien fans, the deep dive into the Ainulindalë (the Music of the Ainur in Elvish) as a rich and distinctive “musical” creation myth is quite imaginative.  Bertoglio explicitly interprets this mythology in the spirit of Tolkien’s celebrated “catholic imagination.” For those who have a deep appreciation for Dante’s Divine Comedy, the author’s treatment of “polyphonic improvisation” in the Commedia as a metaphor for the heavenly contemplation of God as well as a characteristic of the journey to a perfect society is also fascinating. If you are a collector of musical quotes and images from philosophers (Theodor Adorno) to visual artists (Wassily Kandinsky), from theologians (St. Augustine) to musicians (Pierre Boulez), this little work will unfold as a treasury of these.

What will get you (the reader) thinking: One of the main ideas Bertoglio explores is the relationship between temporality and music, particularly musical performance as an analogue to God’s eternal present. Most compelling here may be the author’s exploration of the musical score and its ability to both visually and spatially represent music in time. Chapter 2 on “Musical Scores and Temporality” is particularly mind expanding, as is the subsequent chapter on “Music as a Syntax of Time.”  With the fertile mine of a concert pianist, Bertoglio reveals how a performer can be in the present moment of a piece, whose interpretation is based upon what has already occurred and is yet anticipatory of the music yet to come: an embodied experience of the “already – not yet.”

Kudos: The author demonstrates fluency across visual and musical arts, classical writers and contemporary theorists, obscure poetry and the works of giants such as Dante and Tolkien. This is a remarkable mind, offering wide-ranging reflections in this slim volume. Her ability to move easily between these various terrains can leave the reader a little breathless, and occasionally needing to rewind in order to catch the multiple stretti of her thinking.

Suggestions: No one volume can do everything, especially one so decidedly ambitious about weaving together this sometimes daunting and disparate material. However, what was disappointing for this reader was a complete absence of attention to any of the contemporary empirical work being done on musical perception and meaning, especially by gifted neuroscientists such as Daniel Levitin. It would be satisfying to see how the encyclopedia of personal insights and theories published here affirm or challenge what we are learning about musical perception from the sciences.

Bertoglio, Chiara. Musical Scores and the Eternal Present: Theology, Time, and Tolkien. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2021. xv + 192 pages. $26.00. ISBN: 9781725295025.

REVIEWER: Edward Foley, O.F.M. Cap.
Duns Scotus Professor Emeritus of Spirituality
Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, Illinois

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